A few things have struck me recently about the changing identity of “urban” as it is used to describe America’s inner cities. As an “urban” minister, this word holds great weight and is filled with meaning for me in terms of the kinds of communities I feel called to: things like under-resourced, underprivileged, multi-ethnic, immigrant, gang-ridden, violent, low-income are the descriptors that most quickly come to mind. My recent trip to Chicago, however, drove home for me in a new way the changing face of “urban”.
As Doug and I approached the end of the Brown Line, I was shocked to see Lexuses, Mercedes, and BMWs parked behind what used to be the ghetto apartments behind the El tracks. I was even more taken aback by the apartment buildings along Kimball that have been converted from low-income, crowded apartments to spacious gated condos. I suppose my first clue should have been when our concierge at the Palmer House (thank you, Priceline!) told us that he and his wife had just purchased a condo at “the end of the Brown Line”.
It has been widely reported that poverty and hunger are shifting from America’s urban centers to the suburbs and beyond. Walking down Kimball toward North Park, it was clear that the folks who had made up this community when I lived there must be living somewhere else. In fact, looking out the windows of the El train, I was hard pressed to find ANYTHING resembling “ghetto”. The neighborhoods that were “bad” or “scary” when I moved there are all hip and condo-ridden now. I can remember standing on the roof of Anderson Hall (one of North Park’s women’s dorms) as a visiting prospective student and watching the gunfire in Cabrini Green. You could literally see when weapons were being fired. I remember as a freshman driving down every week to the Henry Horner Housing projects to volunteer with their Boys and Girls Club program. All of those infamous projects are no more, which I am not arguing is a bad thing by any means. But I do wonder where those kids I once knew live now.
Of the kids I have kept in touch with from the old neighborhood, there are very few who retain any ties there today. Cities like Rockford or places that we used to call “the ghetto suburbs” are where their families now live. While I knew this, it wasn’t until my recent visit that the scope of this shift really sunk in.
Bob Lupton speaks of something called “gentrification with justice” and he is a great advocate for churches and para-church organizations working to be agents of justice in the housing arena. Our little church here feels that same pull, but with housing prices being what they are in this community (800K, 1.2 mil.), it feels like such a huge issue to tackle well. And to be honest, if Doug and I did not have the landlord that we have, we would have been priced out of this community (that is increasingly serving USC students) two years ago. Rents have doubled since we moved here in 2002.
I guess the thing I am wondering about in all of this is how churches will respond? As the suburbs become greater centers of poverty, how will the face of suburban churches change? Or have we so fully become commuter-worshipers that it really won’t matter?